Wednesday, November 30, 2011


La Lecture, Georges Croegaert, Musée Carnavalet, Paris  

The spotlight is on France in this year's edition of Travel Oyster's Great Books. I've chosen an incredible novel set in 1940 war-torn France; a delightful cookbook/memoir; a guide to good, inexpensive restaurants in Paris; and a beautifully-written travelog that is very, very funny.

Suite Française
by Irène Némirovsky
Alfred A. Knopf, New York
338 pages.

Suite Française may be the first work of fiction about World War II. Even if you are so inclined, do not let the subject matter of this book deter you from reading it. It is a stunning, insightful, humane, beautifully-written work of art. 

Suite Française has two independent, but interconnected parts. The first, "Storm in June," opens amid the mass exodus of Parisians from the capital on the eve of the Nazi invasion in June of 1940. Némirovsky's finely-detailed characters, some courageous, some heartless, represent a multitude of French citizens, struggling to preserve a world that has ceased to exist. The chaos of the the first section gives way to part two, "Dolce." As its name implies, it is softer and more contemplative. It  takes place in a German-occupied French village. With nuance, perception and incredible objectivity, Némirovsky shows us the complex emotions and the humanity not only of the conquered, but also of the conquerers. 

The novel has the feel of a work written with the long perspective of history. Incredibly, Irène Némirovsky, a successful French writer of Ukrainian, Jewish descent, wrote Suite Française as events were unfolding in occupied France. She envisioned three more parts to her book: Captivity, Battles and Peace. "Captivity" came to Némirovsky herself when she was deported to Auschwitz in 1942. She died there two months later, three years before peace was declared in 1945.  

Némirovsky's two daughters, who survived the war, saved their mother's papers from oblivion. The manuscript of Suite Française, however, only came to light in the late 1990s. It was published in France in 2004 and became an immediate best seller. In this edition published in 2006, the French is faithfully and beautifully rendered into English by translator Sandra Smith.

A Gastrnomic Memoir With Over 250 Recipes
by Madeleine Kamman
Ten Speed Press, Berkeley
357 pages.

Like a Proustian madeleine, Kamman's book, part memoir, part cook book, recalls a France that exists now only in the author's memory. Written 35 years ago, it is a cook book that takes the reader on a gastronomic voyage from the rugged coastal lands of Brittany to the isolated volcanic hills of Auvergne to the sun-washed land of Provence. Along the way, in eight delightful, nostalgic vignettes, Kamman introduces us to the women - great cooks all -  who fostered her love of traditional food and led her to become a renowned chef and teacher. Among others, we meet Mimi Chérie, the author's great-grandmother, whose earthenware casserole in which she cooked almost everything, was always simmering on the old corner stove. We go mushroom hunting with Victoire, an Auvernat cousin of Kamman's grandmother, whose recipe for potatoes and wild mushrooms - made with brown veal stock, "the essence of French cooking" - is included in the cookbook. 

With its more than 250 regional recipes and careful instructions, the book is almost as good as taking a course in French home cooking. Although some recipes may be too complicated for anyone other than a complete devotee of la cuisine française, others are surprisingly simply.  All of them are mouth watering and will take you sweetly back to a time when as Kamman says: "the air smelled nice; clean, fresh, and permeated with the happy essences of bread baking, the nostalgic aroma of wood burning, or the earthy smells of cattle ruminating in nearby barns."

Adrian Leeds Top 100 Cheap Insider Paris Restaurants

by Adrian Leeds
Insider Paris and France Guides

Take a walk in Paris any evening at dinnertime, and you're sure to see groups of bewildered-looking tourists wandering from one restaurant to another, reading the menus and trying to decide where to eat. Often as not, they end up in a very ordinary restaurant with a mediocre, overpriced meal. That will never happen to you if you get a copy of this great guidebook.

I've known Adrian since she moved to Paris from Los Angeles in 1995 with the then novel idea to produce an online guide to Paris restaurants. She's gone on to develop a business that includes property management, rentals, language groups and guidebooks. In recent years, she has made frequent appearances on HG-TVs House Hunters International. Through it all, however, she has continued to produce her Paris restaurant guide. Her research is extensive and hands on: she eats in restaurants twice a day. I can attest from personal experience that Adrian, herself, is a great cook, but most days her refrigerator contains just the bare necessities, including, of course, a chilled bottle of champagne. 

The guidebook includes restaurants in all the 20 arrondissements in Paris - charming, local places with reasonable prices that tourists would be hard-pressed to find on their own. Every entry has a detailed description of the food, the service and the ambiance. There are maps, a glossary of French food terms and some helpful dos and don'ts of French dining etiquette. The book (click here to order) is available in both a print and electronic version. Don't go to Paris without it.

by Terry Darlington
Bantam Books, London
397 pages.

Narrow Dog to Carcassonne is the tale of Terry and Monica Darlington, a retired British couple who decide to pilot their canal narrowboat across the English Channel and down the canals of France to the Mediterranean. They are joined in their excursion by their narrow dog, a whippet named Jim. Since Jim hates boats, he is always eager to get on to dry land where he can roam the countryside and meet the local French people. Darlington describes it all in a wry, comic style that will have you laughing out loud. This is Darlington's first book - one that the Daily Telegraph called "A rich and winning comic debut, destined to become a classic."

Lots of people dream of drifting through France on a canal boat, but it's never appealed to me - too slow, too inactive, too many canals. With Terry Darlington as captain, however, I might reconsider. You may want to sit down with this book when you have plenty of time because it's possible you'll find yourself reading it from cover to cover in one sitting.  

A bientôt,

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The da Vinci Coda - A Michigan Horse Tale

In 1499, the victorious army of Louis XII of France entered Milan, Italy by the Vercellina Gate and camped in the neighborhood of San Vittore al Corpo. On entering the city, the soldiers came upon an enormous clay sculpture of a horse. Commissioned by the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, in honor of his father and as a symbol of the power of the Milan, the finished statue in bronze was to be placed before the Sforza Castle.

Flush with victory and perhaps anticipating more battles to come, the French soldiers used the statue for archery practice. In the ensuing years, the elements reduced the already partially-destroyed clay sculpture to rubble. Thus, one of the great works of the Italian Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci disappeared forever. 

Thousands of miles and hundreds of years removed from Milan, Italy, is Grand Rapids, Michigan, home to the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. Recently, after taking a visiting relative to the Grand Rapids airport, we passed the gardens on our way back to our cabin in northern Michigan and decided to pay them a visit. As expected, we found well-tended flower gardens, fountains, winding paths and beautiful sculptures, by artists such as Rodin, Picasso, Miro and Moore. What we did not expect to find was the reincarnation of Leonardo da Vinci's monumental horse.

Leonardo worked on il cavallo from 1482 to 1493, first on the artistic and anatomical elements of the horse and then on the more difficult technical problems associated with the bronzing of what would have been the world's largest equestrian statue. Work was stopped, however, when Ludovico decided to use the 100 tons of bronze needed to cover the seven-meter (23 feet) statute to make canons to defend Milan from the invading French. The effort was futile. Milan fell, Ludovico was imprisoned and the sculpture was lost.

In 1977, Charles Dent, an American airline pilot and amateur art lover read an article in National Geographic magazine. Entitled "The Horse That Never Was," the article told the story of Leonardo's legendary destroyed masterpiece. Dent decided, then and there, to recreate the lost sculpture and gift it to the City of Milan. He started a foundation and raised $2.5 million.

Dent produced a model for the replica of Leonardo's horse, but although a great lover of art, Dent was not an artist, It became obvious that a professional sculptor was needed to make improvements to the existing model. Nina Akamu, an talented American artist, particularly known for her animal sculpture, was given the commission. Then in 1994, Charles Dent died.

Dent's horse also seemed moribund when in stepped Frederik Meijer. The owner of a supermarket chain in Michigan and a well-known philanthropist, Meijer had read about the project in an article in the New York Times. He agreed to finance the effort and Akamu set about creating her own model.

Although many of Leonardo's notebooks still exist and are filled with drawings of horses, there is no definitive sketch of the 15th-century Milan horse. Akamu, however, studied the notebooks and other works by Leonardo to come up with her 24-foot-high sculpture, entitled The American Horse, which she feels  is true to Leonardo's designs.  

In 1999, five hundred years after Leonardo's model was destroyed, The American Horse was installed at Meijer Gardens. The same year an identical casting was given to the City of Milan. Il Cavallo, as it is known in Italy, stands at the gates of the San Siro Race Course, far from the City Center.

In 2007, the City of Milan announced that Il Cavallo would be moved from the race track to the park grounds of the Sforza Castle, its original intended site. So far, however, no plans have been made for the move.

The Sforza Castle has been waiting for its monumental sculpture for more than 500 years, but - since things often move slowly in Italy - it looks as if it will have to wait a bit longer.

(There's lots more to see and do at the lovely Meijer Gardens.  To visit their web page, click here.)

Click here to see more photos.


Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Astoria Oregon and the Columbia River

On a recent family visit to Oregon, we drove from Portland to Astoria along the scenic East Columbia River Highway. It was a beautiful morning, but the surrounding place names, such as Dismal Nitch and Gnat Creek, belied the sunny skies. Turns out that Astoria is the third wettest city in the United States with an average precipitation of almost 70 inches a year. (The leader is Hilo, Hawaii with 128 inches followed by Quillayute, Washington with 104 inches.) Summer in Astoria is beautiful, however, since most of its rain falls in late autumn and winter. 

Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery found that out when they spent the winter of 1805-1806 in what is now Astoria. Nearing the end of their 4,000 mile journey of exploration of the North American continent, the Corps was in dire need of supplies. They raced down the Columbia River toward the mouth, hoping to meet one of the last trading ships of the season, but an early winter storm forced them off the river and into a cove where they spent six wet, miserable days. As fierce winds blew and monstrous waves pounded the steep and rocky shoreline, Clark feared that the expedition would founder just a few miles from its destination of the Pacific Ocean. "A feeling person would be distressed by our situation," he wrote in his journal, trapped in "that dismal little nitch."   

The group survived. They missed the trading ship, but with the guidance and help of the local Clatsop Indian tribe, they built a winter camp near present-day Astoria, which they named Fort Clatsop. The Corps spent 100 days at the Fort, only 12 of them without rain.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of Astoria in 1811. During that time, the livelihood of the town has come from fur trading, shipping, fish canning and now tourism. A friendly guide in the Heritage Museum told us we needed seven full days to see all Astoria has to offer. I don't know if she is correct, but I do now that two days was not nearly enough to visit all the parks, beaches, hiking trails, historical sites, museums, markets and restaurants in Astoria and nearby Warrenton. (Click here to visit the Astoria/Warrenton Official Visitor Information page. You'll find everything you need for your stay, including a great piece,"Fun in the Rain," that will make you want to seek out Astoria on a stormy day.)

Our first morning was spent outdoors, walking along the estuary of the Columbia River. Dams and locks have significantly tamed the once free-flowing 1,243 mile-long river, but the Columbia is still an awe-inspiring sight. We ate our picnic lunch near a picturesque abandoned cannery, one of about 30 that once lined the Columbia and made Astoria the salmon-packing capital of the Northwest.
On November 7, 1805, the Corps of Discovery arrived not far from our lunch spot. They were still 20 miles from the sea, but Clark mistook the mighty estuary for the Pacific. "Ocian in view! O! the joy," he wrote in his journal. Soon after, the storm rolled in that would maroon the party at Dismal Nitch. Another three weeks would pass before they actually saw the Pacific.

The ships that Lewis and Clark hoped to encounter in 1805 were engaged in trade, with routes between the Northwest territory, the Orient and the United States. To enter the river, these ships had to cross the notorious Columbia River Bar, a series of shoals and sand bars that since 1792 has been the graveyard for approximately 2,000 large ships. The Bar is just as dangerous today, but modern ocean-going vessels have the help of specially-trained bar pilots, who board the ships and navigate them through the restricted channels of the Columbia and over the Bar to and from the sea.

As we walked along the river, we watched bright yellow pilot boats pull alongside immense tankers to deliver or pick up bar pilots, who, each year, guide about 3,600 vessels, carrying 40 million tons of cargo. 

In the afternoon, we visited nearby Fort Stevens State Park for a hike along the ocean, some birdwatching and a close-up look at the mouth of the Columbia and the infamous bar. The seas were calm and we watched as pleasure boats easily crossed the bar. Further down the shore, however, was a beached and swamped sailboat, a reminder of the dangers of rougher seas.

We had planned to camp at the park, but Fort Stevens was booked solid. Cancellations were a possibility, but not until later in the evening. Fortunately while waiting for our dinner table at the wonderful Columbian Cafe in downtown Astoria, we wandered into the Voodoo Room, the bar next door to the Cafe, where the friendly bartender told us about some little-known campsites near Gnat Creek, about 14 miles east of town. Darkness was approaching as we drove up a steep, overgrown dirt road. Just as we were getting uneasy, the road ended at a perfect, flat campsite surrounded by a cathedral of spruce trees. We set up our tents and climbed inside just as darkness fell.  

We awoke to a Lewis and Clark kind of morning, with the rain making a low patter overhead. We rolled up our wet tents and made coffee and oatmeal huddled under the raised hatchback of our car.  

By the time we got back to Astoria, the sun had returned. We walked about the town, looking at the old Victorian houses, sea views, distant hills and mountains.  We had lunch at the Bowpicker - an old fishing boat converted into a take-out restaurant, where the only thing on the menu is fish and chips. The fish is albacore tuna and the line is long, but worth the wait. In the afternoon, we visited the Columbia River Maritime Museum, a fun and interesting place with well-curated exhibits.

Our last stop was a fish market in nearby Warrenton, where we picked up an freshly-caught albacore tuna that we had ordered the day before. We drove back to Portland and by 9 p.m., sat down with family and friends to a dinner of Stephanie's cold cucumber/avocado soup, Matt's marinated, flash-seared tuna and Erin's fresh, sauteed garden vegetables. 

O! the joy!

(The recipe for Steph's "Avocado Soup with Herbs, Slivered Radishes and  Pistachios is from her favorite soup cookbook, "Vegetable Soups from Deborah Madison's Kitchen."  Click here for a copy of the recipe.)

To see more photos, click here.

Until next time,

Photos unless otherwise noted by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Were You Invited?

This past winter, I took a walk along the Seine just outside Paris from St. Germain to Chatou following the path of the Impressionists. (Click here to read.) I ended the day at the Maison Fournaise, the guinguette where Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted his famous Luncheon of the Boating Party. Standing in the winter chill, looking at the deserted terrace, I wondered what it would be like to sit in the warm summer sunshine amid the smiling young faces of Renoir and his friends. I got the answer to my question in a most unexpected place.

Returning home to Michigan after four months in Paris and Pisa, we stopped on the East Coast to visit family. On one of those hot New Jersey spring days that feels like deep summer, we paid a visit to the Grounds For Sculpture, located just outside Trenton. 

Featuring hundreds of contemporary sculptures, most of which are displayed outdoors in its 35-acre garden, the non-profit Grounds For Sculpture opened to the public in 1992 on the site of the old New Jersey State Fairgrounds.    

The New Jersey State Fair became the first sanctioned fair in Colonial America when King George II granted a royal charter in 1745. Held twice a year, it was very popular with local farmers and townspeople who came to buy and sell livestock and other merchandise. Five years later, the State Legislature banned fairs and they did not begin again until the mid-1880s. When I was growing up in Trenton not too far from the fairgrounds, the Fair was still a much-looked-forward-to annual event. By 1980, however, America's fascination with State Fairs began to dwindle, attendance dropped, and the historic New Jersey State Fair closed for good. 

When the Grounds For Sculpture began construction in 1984, the land was hard packed by the millions of visitors to the Fair over the years and seemed an unlikely garden site. Planting began modestly with 12 Japanese maple trees and the garden is added to every year. Today, the Grounds are home to thousands of trees and tens of thousands of shrubs and perennials. It is the brainchild of well-known contemporary sculptor, J. Seward Johnson, known for his lifelike, life-sized bronze sculptures, many of which are to be found not in private collections, but in public squares and parks. Johnson's desire to make contemporary sculpture accessible to people of all backgrounds led to the establishment of the Grounds For Sculpture.

We ran into the first of Johnson's sculptures over a great lunch in the courtyard of the Peacock Cafe. Afterwards, because of the afternoon heat, we wandered over to the shady, flower-lined paths along the lake. It was there that we came upon the luncheon of the boating party. They were all there - Renoir and his future wife, Aline Charigot, and their friends - a complete, life-sized reproduction of Renoir's masterpiece.  Johnson's version includes another table with Johnson and three of his artist friends as well as a maitre d' with a checklist, asking, Were You Invited?, which is the title of Johnson's sculpture. We walked right in and sat down. 

Johnson's art has been called "kitsch," and I can see why. Still, it is hard to resist sitting down in an empty chair, smiling at your new-found friends or in the case of my brother, planting a kiss on Aline's pretty face. It's just what Johnson wants: to convince you of the authenticity of something that isn't real in order to change your perception and allow you to become intimate with a work of art.

There are other Johnson sculptures reproducing the works of the Impressionists scattered throughout the park. You can even find a version of Monet's Giverny garden at Rats, the park's elegant French restaurant.

Johnson's pieces, however, are only a small part of the Grounds For Sculpture, which has more than 250 works by several dozen contemporary artists. They are found around every turn of the elegant and beautifully-tended gardens as well as in indoor exhibition halls.  The halls are renovated 1920s to 1940s State Fair buildings that once housed exhibits of domestic arts, motor vehicles and small livestock. There are also guided tours, lectures, concerts, plays and even opera performances. 

The gardens are a perfect place for a picnic, which you can order up at the Peacock Cafe. There are lots of benches and tables scattered about the grounds or you might just want to picnic with Madame Monet and her son On Poppied Hill, a poppy-strewn hillside based on Claude Monet's Woman with A Parasol (1875) and Poppies (1873).

For a racier picnic spot, seek out Déjeuner Déja Vue, Johnson's version of Edouard Manet's Déjeuner Sur l'Herbe. The subject matter of the original, painted in 1862-63, scandalized the French public and the work was subsequently rejected by the Paris Salon. Today the famous painting hangs in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.

Déjeuner Déja Vue is cleverly hidden away behind dense shrubs at the end of an unmarked trail. Many visitors never find the art work, but those who do, like us, are likely to experience a sense of surprise and a soupçon of the scandal felt by the French public.

To see more photos, click here.

Until next time,

18 Fairgrounds Road
Hamilton, New Jersey 08619
Phone: (609) 586-0616

Photos unless otherwise noted by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Monday, May 2, 2011

Discovering Tuscany

A friend from Lucca, a beautiful and well-known town just over the mountain from Pisa, asked me recently if I'd ever been to Monte Carlo. "Yes," I responded, "several times. We lived in Nice and Monte Carlo is nearby."  "Not that Monte Carlo," she said, "Montecarlo di Lucca."  

Montecarlo, it seems, is a town perched on an isolated hilltop in the Province of Lucca. Its medieval center is well-preserved and it is still surrounded by its splendid wall. It is one of the seemingly hundreds of small, beautiful Tuscan towns unknown to me, even after all these years of visiting and living in Tuscany. Every year though, thanks to Italian friends, we discover more of these hidden treasures. 

Many travel writers have described Tuscany as passé, with nothing new to discover. They need to go traveling with our friends. If they do, they'll find - to name just a few - places like Montecarlo, Camaiore, Populonia, Peccioli, Vicopisano, Giglio Castello, Celle di Puccini, Sarzana, Fosidinovo and Barga, a medieval town with a modern-day jazz tradition. 

There is enough beauty, interest and culture in each one of these town to merit its own article, but it's a bit of a Catch-22. If I take the time to write about every beautiful town we see, I won't have time to visit the towns. Instead I'll use this post to share with you photos taken all over Tuscany.

Pisa, Florence and Siena may be the crown jewels of Tuscany, but there are plenty of other Tuscan gems waiting for you to discover. So if you come, don't be afraid to wander off the beaten track.  

In the meantime, click here to see my photos.


Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


In 1814, Napoleon Bonaparte was banished to the island of Elba. He took with him his mother, his sister and an army of 600 men. He kept his title of Emperor, but his kingdom was confined to this 224-square-kilometer mountainous island, 20 kilometers off the Italian mainland. Surrounded by a sparkling sea and wild natural beauty, Napoleon set up household in the Villa di San Martino, using another villa, the Palazzina dei Mulini for official functions. He declared himself content with his new role in life and set about building roads and making social improvements. Three hundred days after he arrived, however, Napoleon escaped from his island confinement and returned to France to take up once again the reins of power.

Part of the Tuscan Archipelago, Elba is one of a chain of seven jewel-like islands just off the coast of Tuscany where the Ligurian Sea meets the Tyrrhenian Sea. According to local mythology, the islands were formed from pearls that fell from the necklace of Venus as she arose from the foam of the sea. I don't believe the pearl necklace theory. It's obvious to me that given the incredible diversity of the islands, the necklace must have been made up of seven different gems. (For a more scientific explanation, including several links in Italian, click here.)

The seven islands are Elba, Gorgona, Capraia, Giglio,  Giannutri, Pianosa and Montecristo, the last made famous by Alexandre Dumas in his novel, The Count of Monte Cristo

On a recent weekend, we signed up with a few friends for a two-day trip to Elba and Pianosa, organized by CAI, the Alpine Club of Italy. At 6:20 a.m, we met up at the Pisa station with a genial group of about 30 hikers. With everything organized in advance by our very capable capogita, we took a train, a van and two boats and arrived on the island of Pianosa at 10:30 a.m.

As its name implies, Pianosa is flat. Its highest point is  29 meters, but it is not without interest. First inhabited in the Upper Paleolithic era, the island, known then as Planasia, was an important grain producing area for the Romans and  has the remains of extensive Roman catacombs. Like Elba, Pianosa also had a famous prisoner - Agrippa Postumas, who was exiled there by his grandfather the Emperor Augustus in 9 AD. 

Successively populated and abandoned over the centuries, Pianosa became known in modern times as the home of a self-sustaining agricultural penal colony established there in 1858 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Prisoners lived and worked on small farms and produced and sold all the products needed on Pianosa, including wine, bread and pecorino cheese. A photo exhibit on the island presents a portrait of a tranquil, bucolic existence for guards and prisoners alike. In the 1970s, however, the serenity on the island ended when the State established a maximum security prison there. Pianosa became home to Italy's most dangerous criminals, including mafia chiefs and convicted terrorists of the Red Brigades

The prison was closed in 1998 and Pianosa, along with the other six islands, became part of the National Park of the Tuscan Archipelago, which maintains a small staff on the island. Nature has taken over the fields and farms of the prisoners and the maximum security buildings have fallen into disrepair. 

Our tour included a two-hour walk along a coastline dotted with picturesque coves and inlets - a veritable beach-lovers dream. After a picnic lunch by the sea, we visited the catacombs and the town. With its beautiful abandoned port and empty buildings, Pianosa has a mysterious and melancholic feel, even in the bright Mediterranean sunshine. Just before five, we rushed to catch the only boat to Elba, lest we become Pianosa's latest prisoners. 

On Sunday we made up for our leisurely stroll around Pianosa with a strenuous climb to the second highest peak on Elba, Monte Calanche. It was pretty much 900 meters straight up and then a final push to the top made with the aide of lines attached to the rock face.  "Divertente," as our guide said. It was, indeed, fun and the effort required to get to the top made the splendid view from above all the more beautiful and our prosciutto panini all the more tasty. After that, it was all downhill  - long and fast.  

On the ferry back to the mainland with following gulls and a setting sun, I sat and reflected on the two grand truths of the weekend:
1) Without freedom, even a paradise such as Elba can become an inferno, and;
2)  It's amazing how far you can get on a mountain (and in life) if you just put one foot in front of the other.

To see more photos, click here.


Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Campiglia to Portovernere, Beyond the Cinque Terre

Liguria, home to the Italian Riviera, is one of Italy's smallest regions. It sits in the wide, sweeping arch of northwestern Italy facing the Ligurian Sea with the Apennine Mountains forming a majestic backdrop. In between is a land of steep valleys that drop precipitously to a crystalline blue/green sea. Picturesque fishing villages cling to its coast, including the Cinque Terre, five seaside towns that are so special that in 1997 they were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once a well-kept secret, the five towns are now part of the Cinque Terre National Park and have become one of Italy's best-known and most visited tourist spots. On weekends, especially in summer, the beautiful trail along the sea that connects the five towns is crowded with walkers. 

What many people don't know is that just south of the Cinque Terre is another town, Portovenere, that is every bit as beautiful as the other five. Portovenere is part of the same Park that encompasses the Cinque Terre, but it is not as closely linked as the other five towns. It's a three to four hour hike from Riomaggiore, the most southern of the Cinque Terre, to Portovenere. 

Portovenere can be reached by car, but we took the train from Pisa to La Spezia and then a bus to Le Grazie, where we began our hike. All this was easily accomplished with the aide of our friend Francesca, who knows every twist and turn of all the hiking trails in the area. After getting off the bus, it was just a short walk to the trailhead. 

Not a hike for the faint of heart, the trail begins on an ancient mulattiera. These mule trails, found all over Italy, were once the public roads that connected villages, particularly in mountainous areas. Our mulattiera, composed of thousands of steps made of local stones, zigzagged through the forest climbing quickly and steeply toward the medieval village of Campiglia, our first stop. 

Campiglia is well worth the climb. From the piazza in front of the church, there is a view of the busy harbor of the Gulf of La Spezia, the Ligurian Sea and the Apennine Mountains. On this day, clouds covered the lower slopes of the mountains so that the majestic peaks appeared suspended in a dreamscape of sea and sky.   

In the gastronomic world, Campiglia is known for its high-quality saffron, made from the stems of the crocus plant. (It takes about 150,000 flowers to make one kilo of saffron.) In times past, the saffron was made only from the wild crocuses that grow in profusion on the surrounding hills. About 10 years ago, however, the town began cultivating crocus and now has a thriving industry.  

Fortunately for us, the cafe on the main street in Campiglia was closed and in our search for another, we discovered Piccoloblu, a charming cafe/restaurant, where everything is homemade using local products. Sitting in the sun with an incredible view of the sea, we sampled several offerings, including the best onion focaccia I have ever tasted. Fortified, we struck out for Portovenere. 

Just outside of Campiglia were two signs indicating trails to Portovenere - one marked difficoltoso.  "Not so difficult," said Francesca, "and much more beautiful than the other." The difficulty is the steepness of the descent and the loose rocks underfoot. The beauty is everything: the distant mountains, the sun-baked cliffs of Monte Castellana aglow with flowering plants and, of course, the sea on both sides of the promontory that runs swiftly downhill to Portovenere. 

Midway along the path is a rocky plateau, where the sun on the rocks turned spring into summer. It was a perfect place for a snack (hiking makes you hungry) and a leisurely look at the almost surreal panorama of Portovenere and the islands of Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto. If I ever get around to writing my book, "Great Picnic Spots of the World," this place will surely be in it. The warmth of the sun also coaxed forth some early wild asparagus that we gathered in anticipation of a evening frittata.  

As we got closer to Portovenere, the larger panorama gave way to beautiful details: the black and white facade of the 11th-century Chiesa di San Pietro on its rocky perch high above the sea, the imposing Genovese military fortress, and the Golfo dei Poeti, an inlet that was admired by poets from Petrarch to Byron. Beyond we could see fishing boats in the harbor and the quayside lined with brightly-colored medieval buildings.  

It started to rain just after we reached Portovenere, but it was a light drizzle that only added to the romance of the town and the sea. We visited the church and walked the old, medieval main street, where every store sold local products, including rich, creamy pesto from nearby Genova.  

Then it was back to Pisa for a wonderful meal prepared by Francesca's husband, Fabrizio, that included a frittata with the wild, freshly-gathered asparagus.

To see more photos, click here.

A presto, 

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Populonia, An Etruscan City by the Sea

We're in Pisa, having left behind the bright lights of Paris and the bustling street views. Our apartment here  looks down on the rooftops of medieval buildings, into gardens hidden from view at street level, and out beyond the town to the gentle, undulating Pisan Hills. To get to this sun-filled room with a view, we have to climb 89 time-worn, stone steps. Inside all is open and modern, but the building shows its age in the huge oak beams, the brick-lined ceiling and the thick stone walls. (Click here to read about the medieval skyscrapers of Pisa.)

As old as Pisa is, however, it is a newcomer on the Italian stage when compared with Populonia, an Etruscan city south of Pisa on the Bay of Baratti. Named for the Etruscan version of the god Bacchus and famous in antiquity for its wine, Populonia's origins go back almost 3,000 years.

The Etruscans have intrigued me ever since my Italian grandfather told me about an Etruscan chariot discovered in his hometown of Monteleone di Spoleto. Now housed in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the chariot is one of the great treasures of the Etruscan civilization. So, on a recent sunny and warm Sunday when our friends Fabrizio and Roberta proposed a visit to Populonia, we gladly accepted. 

An hour's drive through the verdant Tuscan countryside brought us to the little weekend cottage of Roberta's brother not far from the ancient town. After introductions and warm Italian greetings, the four of us set off through the hills for a 10-mile hike that would take us down to the port of Populonia and then up to the fortified part of the town, known as Populonia Alta. 

It is uncertain if the Etruscans were a people indigenous to Italy or if they migrated to the Italian peninsula, most probably from the Near East. Although examples of the Etruscan language are found on their tombstones and in one or two fragments of written texts, there is no Etruscan "Rosetta Stone" to aid modern linguists. It is known, however, that the Etruscans were at the height of their power, both commercially and militarily, in about the 5th century b.c. In the following centuries, the Etruscan civilization was gradually assimilated into the Greek and Roman cultures.  

Our walk began in the rolling hills where the Etruscans once farmed wheat and cultivated their vineyards. As we topped the last hill, we got our first view of the beautiful wide curve of the Bay of Baratti lined with the remains of forges from the 4th century b.c. Its curiously sparkling black sand is all that remains of the profitable metal industry of the Etruscans, who exploited the rich cooper ore in the area of Populonia and later the iron ore from the nearby island of Elba. 

The Romans and all who followed continued the mining, depleting the area of its metal resources and producing enormous mountains of slag that buried all traces of the once-great Etruscan city. As the centuries passed, all that was left of Etruscan Populonia was the memory of its name. 

As we stood on the beach, however, we could see the remains of metal forges, large groups of Etruscan tombs and an enormous round tumulus. Although some Etruscan artifacts were found in the early 1800s, it was not until 1897 that the first tombs of ancient Populonia were uncovered by a self-taught Italian archeologist named Isidoro Falchi. In 1929, an Italian mining company began operations to extract valuable metals that still remained in the huge slag heaps. As the material was removed, more traces of Etruscan Populonia began to emerge. The downside, according to some archeologists,  was that the use of heavy machinery not only destroyed many items, but also profoundly modified the stratigraphic distribution of the archeological find.

In spite of this, the necropolis of Populonia is still one of the most important monuments of the Etruscan civilization. Along with an industrial area and an extensive Roman-style acropolis, the necropolis can be seen at the Archeological Park of Baratti and Populonia

Since it takes many hours to visit the park, we decided to leave it for another day. Instead, we walked along the sea to the edge of the port and then uphill on the Romanella Path. Although rebuilt many times over the centuries, the path is the same one used by the Etruscans to get from the industrial lower part of their city to the fortified town above. As we walked, we passed long stretches of the original Etruscan wall that dates to the first half of the 5th century B.C. 

We ate our picnic lunch in front of the imposing 15th century fortress built by the Lords of nearby Piombino, using the foundation of an earlier Etruscan building and stones from Etruscan tombs. Beneath us were the remains of the acropolis and a view out across the sea to the island of Elba just visible on the horizon. We sat a while in the sunshine, had an espresso in a cafe (in Italy, there's always a cafe nearby) and then headed downhill.  

Our return route took us along the edge of the archeological park with a view of many of the tombs, across fields and down a wooded path back to the cottage. We arrived just in time for a glass of wine and the last few pieces of a delicious frittata made with spring leeks. After recounting the day's adventures, we said our goodbyes and headed back to the much-more "modern" Pisa.

To see more photos, click here.

A presto,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor